How much choice is enough? The intrinsic (dis)value of secondary school choice in England and Scotland
Proponents and opponents of choice in public services disagree not only over whether it produces better outcomes, but also over whether it is intrinsically valuable. I develop a novel theoretical framework (drawing on literature from philosophy and psychology) to determine whether choosing public services increases or reduces users' subjective welfare, freedom and autonomy. I then apply this framework to secondary school choice, comparing Scotland (where most children attend a default assigned
... a default assigned school) and England (where families are expected to formally apply to multiple schools). I do so by means of a mixed-methods study, combining thematic analysis of qualitative in-depth interviews with parents and children from 57 families in five cities (two in England, three in Scotland) and an online survey of 987 parents (801 in England, 186 in Scotland). While the overwhelming majority of families want some degree of choice of schools, those in Scotland are no less satisfied with the level of choice that they have. Indeed, greater school choice is associated with lower perceived empowerment and welfare. English families are more cynical and fatalistic about the process, and find it more inconvenient, time consuming, stressful and anxiety-provoking than those in Scotland. These patterns are mirrored at a sub-national level, with families that consider more schools and do more research having more negative experiences. Elements of school choice can be moderately enjoyable, particularly for more engaged families and those in England. However, these benefits are dwarfed by the psychological burdens of school choice. To reduce these burdens, policymakers should limit uncertainty, informational complexity and the frequency of rejected applications – as the Scottish system successfully does. This thesis refines the theoretical debate over choice in public services, adds to our empirical understanding of the costs and benefits of choice in practice, and contributes to discussions of fair school admissions policy.